9 Park Street, Essex Junction, 878-6699
The old house on the corner of Park Street, just across the street from the Lincoln Inn, has seen its share of Asian restaurants. For years, it was home to Ming's, a Chinese eatery remembered more for its abuse of workers than its food.
Then, there was the excellent Thai restaurant, Drunken Noodle House, which closed with little fanfare early this summer. Pho Vietnam quickly filled the spot, but I didn't have time to try it until this stormy Sunday.
The interior was clean and bright, much as the Drunken Noodle House folks left it. The first three quarters of the menu was standard Vietnamese — pho, bun, rice plates and eggrolls. A final page of house specials included pad Thai, pad kee mao and a few Vietnamese seafood stir-fries, featuring salmon or swordfish.
The last were tempting, but I have standard dishes when reviewing a new Vietnamese place. In my opinion, there's no better barometer than pho and the rice noodle salad known as bun.
But first, I had to try the dumplings. Available steamed or fried, I went for the former. The picture-perfect crimped edges were as soft and moist as one could hope. The dumplings were slippery as I grabbed them in my chopsticks and dunked them in light soy dipping sauce.
The filling was garlicky and savory, with chunks of ground pork, carrots and something I couldn't identify. Whatever it was, it popped when I bit it, like a giant fish egg. The curious texture added fun and mystery, especially when I couldn't tell what it was even after dissecting a dumpling.
Textural surprises continued with the pho. Though I'm used to meat tiger-striped with fat and gristle in my Vietnamese food, this was the first time I ordered a soup with rare beef and meatballs and ended up with more chunks of gelatinous connective tissue than muscular meat. Early on a Sunday, it was more than my Western stomach was prepared for. I stuck to the dense meatballs, thinly sliced flank and as much brisket as I could wrest from between unchewable strands of gristle.
This would not have been an issue if the broth itself had been more flavorful. Though it was lightly sweet from long-cooked beef bones, the taste was thin. I also couldn't detect anise, cinnamon or any of the other spices that make the best phos sing.
A glut of noodles in the bowl compounded the problem. A big, white mass dominating a dish is never a great idea. A pair of chile sauces, in ketchup and mustard bottles, helped alleviate the blandness, as did the fresh, dewy basil leaves that joined lime and bean sprouts on a plate of mix-ins.
The bun was a far happier story. The dish had an uncommon character. Its flavor was defined not so much by the vinegary wash of nước cham dumped in, but by peanuts. The legumes filled the bowl of rice noodles and bright, crisp vegetables. It also flavored the lean, though somewhat chewy, pork. When hints of the marinade mixed with noodles, carrots, lettuce and cucumbers, the combination tasted like a slightly acidic order of sesame noodles.
The egg roll was also excellent. It was gingery, nutty and filled with discernible chunks of pork, which is a rare thing.
Now that I've tried my standards to mixed results, I figure my next shot at Pho Vietnam will require a taste of swordfish. Until then, I'm sticking to Bamboo Hut.